Freckles vs. Melasma vs. Skin Spots: How to Spot the Difference

skin spots

So you’ve got a little mark on your skin, and you’re not sure what it is. Is it freckles, melasma, skin spot, or, worse, skin cancer? How can you tell them apart? Here’s a quick guide to help you out:

What Are Freckles?

Freckles are small dark spots that typically appear on the face, neck, and arms. They’re caused by an overproduction of melanin, the substance that gives skin its color. Freckles are harmless and typically don’t require any treatment.

Some factors can increase your chance of developing freckles:

  • Genetics: Some genetic markers such as the MC1R, BNC2, and IRF4 could make one susceptible to developing freckles. However, it doesn’t mean a guarantee. In other words, having these genes do not result in having freckles right away. Others, meanwhile, may not have these markers but still get freckles.
  • Sun Exposure: Freckles are more common in people who have a lot of sun exposure. No one knows why this happens, but it also explains why these spots become more visible during summer and fade in the winter.
  • Age: In many cases, freckles will become fewer, less frequent, or less visible as the person grows old.
  • Race: A DNA predictive model revealed that freckles are more common among Asian and European populations.

What Is Melasma?

Melasma is a condition that causes dark patches to form on the skin. These patches can be either light or dark brown, and they often look like a “mask” or “halo” around the face. Fortunately, you can treat it or, in some cases, let it go away on its own.

Melasma is caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • Hormones: Pregnancy, birth control pills, and hormone replacement therapy can all trigger melasma.
  • Sun Exposure: Sun exposure is the most common cause of melasma.
  • Skin Type: People with darker skin are more likely to get melasma.
  • Race: Melasma is more common in women of color.

clear skin

What Are Skin Spots?

Skin spots are small dark flat lesions that can occur anywhere on the body. They’re often mistaken for freckles, but they’re a different condition. They can appear anywhere on the body but are most common in areas with the most sun exposure.

Skin spots are usually benign (not cancerous), but they may indicate skin cancer if they start growing rapidly or asymmetrically.

The exact causes are unknown, but a few factors may play a role:

  • Age: Skin spots are more common in older adults. Unlike freckles, they stay around longer as the person gets older.
  • Sun Exposure: Sun exposure is the most common cause of skin spots. It triggers the body to produce more melanin.
  • Race: People with light-skinned complexion are likelier to develop sunspots.

Skin spots are typically harmless, but it’s best to consult a dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis, mainly if the spot exhibits the following:

    • It changes in size, shape, or color.
    • The spot proliferates.
    • It is itchy, sore, or bleeds.
  • The spot turns into a sore that won’t heal.
  • The spot becomes crusty, scabbed, or crusted.

Should You Treat These Conditions?

It depends. Usually, if the spots are harmless, they can go away independently. They can also disappear if you treat the root cause, like hormone changes that lead to melasma.

If the spot seems suspicious or cancerous, the dermatologist needs to treat it right away before it worsens. Either way, if you want to get rid of your spots, you have several options:

1. Laser Removal

This is the most common way to get rid of spots. It often requires multiple treatments, but laser removal is very effective.

A commercial laser pigmentation removal machine emits a specific wavelength that only targets the pigmented cells, which contain melanin. The lymphatic system then eliminates them from the body. The procedure also stimulates the production of new skin cells, which will hopefully have fewer melanin cells.

2. Exfoliation Treatments

This involves gentle exfoliation with materials like alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acids to wipe away the spots slowly over time. It can take months before you notice any results, but it’s very safe and effective in the long run.

3. Topical Creams

Various creams on the market claim to get rid of skin spots. However, not all of them work, and some can even be dangerous if they’re misused, such as hydroquinone. It’s best to consult a dermatologist before using any topical cream to get rid of skin spots.

  1. Surgery

Rarely, surgery may be necessary to remove skin spots. This usually happens if the spot is large, growing rapidly, or is in a sensitive area like the eyelid. Again, it’s best to speak with a dermatologist before considering surgery as an option.

Skin hyperpigmentation is a lot more common than people think. The good news is that often, it is harmless. If you find the spots annoying or uncomfortable, you have several options to remove them.


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